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“The Universe made me do it”

John Horgan interviews mathematician and blogger Stephen Woit on his views about the emptiness of a lot of physics these days. The problem is that “string theory”, which invokes 13 dimensions to explain what is observed, has made no predictions that can dispute or confirm it, in thirty years of theorizing.

A sample of Woit’s approach:

Horgan: Are multiverse theories not even wrong?

Woit: Yes, but that’s not the main problem with them.  Many ideas that are “not even wrong”, in the sense of having no way to test them, can still be fruitful, for instance by opening up avenues of investigation that will lead to something conventionally testable.  Most good ideas start off “not even wrong”, with their implications too poorly understood to know where they will lead.  The problem with such things as string-theory multiverse theories is that “the multiverse did it” is not just untestable, but an excuse for failure.  Instead of opening up scientific progress in a new direction, such theories are designed to shut down scientific progress by justifying a failed research program.

Horgan: What’s your take on the proposal of Nick Bostrom and others that we are living in a simulation?

Woit: I like quite a bit this comment from Moshe Rozali (at URL “As far as metaphysical speculation goes it is remarkably unromantic. I mean, your best attempt at a creation myth involves someone sitting in front of a computer running code? What else do those omnipotent gods do, eat pizza?”

I noticed that the normally astute Dilbert guy, Scott Adams, believes we are in a simulation. My reaction to that is the same as Woit’s. What would be the difference between a being powerful enough to create the simulation and a being powerful enough to create the universe as we see it?

Back to Woit’s interview by Horgan.

Horgan: Sean Carroll has written that falsifiability is overrated as a criterion for distinguishing science from pseudo-science? Your response?

Woit: No one thinks that the subtle “demarcation problem” of deciding what is science and what isn’t can simply be dealt with by invoking falsifiability. Carroll’s critique of naive ideas about falsifiability should be seen in context: he’s trying to justify multiverse research programs whose models fail naive criteria of direct testability (since you can’t see other universes).  This is however a straw man argument: the problem with such research programs isn’t that of direct testability, but that there is no indirect evidence for them, nor any plausible way of getting any.  Carroll and others with similar interests have a serious problem on their hands: they appear to be making empty claims and engaging in pseudo-science, with “the multiverse did it” no more of a testable explanation than “the Jolly Green Giant did it”.  To convince people this is science they need to start showing that such claims have non-empty testable consequences, and I don’t see that happening.

Woit is not the first person to be highly critical of the string theory movement. You can read more about it here in Woit’s blog called “not even wrong”.

There is also Lee Smolin’s book, The Trouble with Physics (2006) for more on this issue.

Eric Weinstein said of string theory on the Rubin Report that it was an employment program for baby-boomer mathematicians. He did not mean it unkindly.